May B./Caroline Starr Rose: Reflections

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ten years ago, I was spending these heated summer days reading through 160+ books written for children and teens.  Picture books, middle-grade books, history books, biographies, verse novels, novels—you name it.  I'd been asked to chair the Young People's Literature Jury for the National Book Awards.  I was serious, as I tend to be, about the responsibility.

Among the books that rapidly made its way to the top of my pile was Marilyn Nelson's Carver: A Life in Poems.  Here was George Washington Carver's life told with lyric majesty.  Here was poverty and agriculture, botany and music, and I loved every word. Nelson's book would go on to be among the National Book Award finalists that year.  It remains a book I return to repeatedly, cite often, keep tucked into a special corner of my shelves.

It seems fitting, then, that I have spent much of this warm, quiet day with Caroline Starr Rose's magnificent middle grade novel-in-verse in hand.  It's called May B. and it takes us to the Kansas prairie, where young Mavis Elizabeth Betterly, a struggling reader in school, has been sent fifteen miles from her home to help a new homesteader out.  Tragedy strikes, and May B. is soon alone—fending off winter and wolves and the flagellation of self doubt until:
It is hard to tell what is sun,
what is candle,
what is pure hope.
That is May B., thinking out loud. That is the quality of the prose that streams through this book—timeless, transcendent, and graced with lyric spark, moving, always, the consequential story along:
She rocks again.
"The quiet out here's the worst part,
thunderous as a storm the way
it hounds you
He had that look that reminds me
someday he'll be a man.
Caroline Starr Rose is both a teacher and a writer (and a fine blogger).  She wondered, she writes, how children with learning differences, such as dyslexia, made their way, years ago, and May B. arose in part from that question, as well as from Caroline's own love for social history.  I listen for rhythms in the books I read, and I found them aplenty here.  I look for heart, and found that, too—abundant and dear. Special books fit themselves into special places, and May B. has a new home here on my shelves—right beside Ms. Nelson's Carver and Jeannine Atkins' Borrowed Names, where versed, artful, backward-glancing works for younger readers go. 

A non sequitur, perhaps:  When I finished reading May B. an hour or two ago, I realized something.  I have at long last collected enough fine young adult literature of different genres and slants to teach that YA course that I have so often been asked to consider.  Ideas form.

May B. is due out from Schwartz & Wade Books, January 2012.


Caroline Starr Rose said...

I cannot tell you what this means to me, to have you celebrate my May girl and to place her on the shelf next to CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS. If ever there was a hero in my life, it is this man. My parents live near GWC's birthplace and outside the town where he first started school. I am no scientist (nor have much interest in this field), but I have always been drawn to this generous, wise, compassionate, forgiving soul. And what a teacher he was!

I am beyond touched to realize this girl, who has taught me so much about living fully, is now making her way in the world and is speaking into other lives.

Thank you a million times over.

Q said...

YES. Please teach a YA class. I would love for them to start one at my school, but I doubt they will.

Jeannine Atkins said...

Thanks so much for your warm thoughts toward Borrowed Names, Beth. I look forward to reading May B!

Sherrie Petersen said...

What a beautiful review! I'm so excited for Caroline, even more so with your comments on her novel.

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